Digging through the layers of Malta’s religious past

by
22 March 2019

Tim Wyatt finds a fascinating mixture of pagan, Christian, and Islamic history on the Mediterranean island

The Grand Harbour at Valletta, the epicentre of the Great Siege of 1565

The Grand Harbour at Valletta, the epicentre of the Great Siege of 1565

FROM the outside, Tas-Silg, an archaeological site in the south of Malta, does not look like much at all. If you peer through the mesh metal fence that surrounds the complex, all you see is a windswept hilltop, covered in broken lumps of stone and sprouting with weeds.

But, despite its unassuming appearance, Tas-Silg tells the story of the Maltese islands. And, more than that, it also tells the story of religion in this corner of the Mediterranean — a story that stretches back more than 5000 years.

Archaeologists have discovered that the very same stones that now lie crumbled in ruins have been used and re-used, by no fewer than six cultures, to build at least three different places of worship, where about five separate religions were practised.

Roughly two and half millennia before the birth of Christ, the Stone Age peoples who then inhabited Malta built a temple at Tas-Silg. This passed through various forms of prehistoric worship throughout the Bronze Age, until Malta was conquered by the Phoenicians in 700 BC. Using the same stone blocks, they built their own temple to the goddess Astarte, which was then inherited and adapted into a shrine to Juno by the Romans who had taken over island in the third century BC.

But the catena of conversions was not yet complete. Centuries later, after the Roman and Byzantine Empires had converted to Christianity, the temple was again knocked down, and rebuilt as a monastery. Finally, yet another new faith came to Malta: Islam. During the Islamic period, which began in about 800, the new overlords of the island razed the monastery at Tas-Silg once and for all.

As the archaeologists who are still excavating the site today dig down, they go through layer on layer of accreted faiths, laid down over millennia. Peering through the accumulated strata of history, archaeology, and culture, a religious history of the island can be discerned.

TIM WYATTRuins at the archaeological site of Tas-Silg, where three places of worship were used by six separate cultures to practice at least five different religions, all using the same stones

 

MALTA has long been a contested isle. As a strategically important port in the Mediterranean, it has often been on the boundaries of empires and states as they have wrestled for control of the ocean and the continent.

But the story of faith on the island began thousands of years before multi-national empires began taking an interest in Malta. It all started on the small island to the north of Malta itself: Gozo. There, visitors are drawn to the Ggantija temples: enormous megalithic structures erected in about 3600 BC, making them the second-oldest man-made religious buildings ever discovered.

The pair of stone temples lie in farmland, outside the tiny village of Xaghra. The first thing that hits you as you arrive is their sheer size: 20 metres high, made solely of enormous slabs of stone (some weighing as much as 20 tonnes). The stones came from quarries up to 500 metres away.

Excavations reveal no domestic refuse on the site, showing them to be used solely for ritual. But the precise nature of worship that took place is still unclear: archaeologists have found evidence of the burning of animals (perhaps in sacrifice), and numerous small statues, which often resemble fat or pregnant women, and are suspected to be connected to fertility rites. Other clues come from the alignment of the complex, which may be lined up to the rising of the sun.

Ggantija, which means “giantess” in Maltese, is the oldest and most significant of the temples found across the islands — more, in fact, than the small local population at the time could have sustained. This, historians believe, suggests that Malta was seen as a sacred isle by neighbouring Mediterranean communities in places such as Sicily and southern Italy.

These Stone Age temples were in use for at least 1500 years, but then fell into disrepair and were partly forgotten, in an era before written history had begun, only being rediscovered in the 18th century.

TIM WYATTSt Paul’s Catacombs, where pagans, Jews, and Christians both buried their dead and worship underground

 

THE story of faith in the Maltese islands then fast-forwards to the Roman era, which began in about 200 BC. And it is underground, rather than in imposing temples, where we pick up the thread.

In the central Maltese town of Rabat lies a network of catacombs: underground tombs that were first dug after the Romanisation of the island. Once you have gone down steep stone steps, you enter a warren of tunnels, many of which are so small that visitors must bend double to squeeze through.

In every direction are recesses carved directly into the rock — some as small as a coffin, others as large as a living room — where relatives of those who had died would deposit the remains of their loved ones.

But, more than that, the catacombs were also sites of worship and devotion. The larger burial spaces also include a wide flat table (also carved from the bedrock), known as an agape table. There, Roman Maltese would share a ritual meal together while burying a departed relative. As you move from tunnel to tunnel, another curious sight emerges: a plethora of crosses and menorahs etched into the stones, indicating which tombs belonged to Christians and which to Jews. These tombs are often found literally side by side: evidence of the diversity and tolerance of late Roman Malta.

Since the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, the catacombs offer an insight into what happens when governments tell their people to change religion. The agape tables, despite being an obviously pagan ritual, continued underground, even as the Maltese began carving crosses and other Christian insignia into their catacombs. Then, during the Byzantine era, people attempted to convert the catacombs into an underground church. All that remains of their efforts are impressive stone columns in one part of the complex.

Hundreds of years later, the catacombs mostly fell into abeyance. The Roman practice of burying the dead underground, away from the town, was replaced by the Christian habit of burying near churches in the heart of the community.

TIM WYATTThe narrow sandstone streets of Mdina, the walled city and former Islamic capital of Malta

IN 870, as part of a broader continental conflict between the Christian Byzantines and the Muslim Arabs, Malta was conquered and claimed for Islam. For hundreds of years, a different faith was imposed on the population: churches — many of which had once been pagan temples — were either razed or converted into mosques.

The island was on the front line of the medieval pan-Mediterranean war between a Christian Europe and an Islamic Middle East and North Africa. The Islamic era did not last long — Malta was retaken by Christian Normans in 1127, the last Arab stronghold in the region to fall — but it left its mark deep in Maltese culture.

The most obvious impact today is in the Maltese language. It uses the Roman alphabet, but its closest linguistic relative is Arabic. What is perhaps the jewel of the island’s historic walled cities — Mdina — is the place to go to dig deeper into this contradictory back story.

Set high on a hill in the centre of the island, Mdina (which comes from the Arabic word for “city”) is a beautiful walled city, surrounded entirely by soaring battlements and a deep moat, carpeted with grass and trees. It was first a Roman town, but was reconstructed by the Arabs in about 1000, and became the island’s Islamic cultural centre during this period.

As you stroll through the quiet, narrow streets, with their ancient stone houses, you encounter a riot of architecture: Italian, Spanish, Arabic, and even Roman. At the centre of the city, which now has a population of only 150, and where cars are banned from its crooked thoroughfares, is the cathedral. Today, it is the seat of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Malta, and (as with almost everything on the island) is dedicated in memory of St Paul. But excavations have revealed that it stands on the site of what was Mdina’s mosque, which itself was built on the site of the Roman governor’s house.

TIM WYATTThe gaudy and ornate interior of St John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta, which is dedicated to the Knights of St John

 

ONCE the island was back within the fold of Christian Europe, it was governed by Norman monarchs for a period, before it fell into the hands of an even more fervently religious rule: the Order of St John. These monastic hospitaller knights came together during the Crusades, but fled to Malta in 1530 after their previous home in Rhodes fell to the Ottoman Empire.

The local population, which had in the space of just 1500 years swung from pagan to Christian to Muslim, were not only reconverted to Christianity, but were once again thrust into the cockpit of a war of religion, ruled by a monastic order dedicated to battling against Islam throughout the Mediterranean world. The struggle reached its apogee in 1565, when the Ottomans sought to conquer Malta itself and wipe out their hated enemies, the Knights, who had turned Malta into a Catholic fortress.

An enormous fleet and army set sail from Constantinople, and besieged the island’s precious harbour for more than three months. But a vastly outnumbered force of Knights and local Maltese held out against tens of thousands of Turks, and claimed a famous victory for Christianity and Catholicism.

The story of this nation-making event is written into the names of the towns which today surround the harbour: the capital, Valletta, is named after the Grand Master of the Order of St John at the time, while the town across the water, where the remnant withstood the Turkish bombardment, was renamed Vittoriosa in memory of their glorious victory. Throughout Valletta, the eight-pointed star of the Order is etched into stones, buildings, and the city’s main cathedral, which is effectively a shrine to the Knights and their zeal for Christ.

Being dragged into a vicious war of religion against their will did not seem to turn the Maltese against the faith of their new overlords. Instead, losing about a third of their population during the defeat of the forces of Islam turned the natives of the island into some of the most fervently Catholic in Europe. This endlessly adaptable populace, having weathered centuries of shifting religious identity, embra the guardians of the frontline of Christianity.

TIM WYATTIn the town of Rabat, locals compete with rival neighbourhoods in their devotion to either St George or the Madonna

MORE evidence of this complicated spiritual history can be found in the Maritime Museum, which sits just outside the mighty fort that the Order of St John rebuilt in Vittoriosa, after surviving the Great Siege. Inside is a Roman column, which was then converted to become a funerary column by the Arabs during Malta’s Islamic era, before being refashioned by the Catholic Knights to honour one of their number. After the success of the Great Siege, the Order of St John went on the offensive, and used Malta as a base to launch decades of raids against Ottoman and Arab shipping in the Mediterranean. For centuries, the island prospered as a Catholic redoubt, until war in Europe erupted again in the late 18th century.

This time, it was a newly atheistic France, emboldened by its anti-clerical revolution, which turned its sights on Malta and its superb harbour. Forces led by Napoleon landed on the island in 1798, quickly forcing the Knights to surrender their 250-year occupation. But Napoleon’s revolutionary zeal was no match for the deep faith of the Maltese. When he began to desecrate and plunder churches and expel priests, he sparked an uprising, which began in Mdina, the former Islamic capital.

Rising up against their new godless overlords, the local people forced the French garrison out just two years after they arrived, thanks to the intervention of yet another foreign power: the British. Any Christians — even Protestants — were better, it was felt, than the atheists from France.

More exhibits at the Maritime Museum — based in the former Royal Naval bakery — exemplify the strange loyalties of this period. In the space of only two years, one ship, the Santissimo Crucifico, went from being run by the Catholic Knights to joining the atheistic navy of France, under the name of a revolutionary general, Vaubois, to being retaken by the British, and christened in honour of George III, the Protestant Hanoverian on the throne in London. Throughout, the ship was sailed and captained by the same Maltese crew.

But, this time, perhaps learning from the experience of Napoleon, the new Protestant governors of Malta did not attempt to impose their own religion. Sensing that the Catholicism of the island had sunk deep, the British constructed a a handful of Anglican churches to serve the imperial expats, and left the natives to themselves.

Over time, however, English was gradually imposed as the primary language, instead of the historic Italian spoken during the rule of the Order of St John. This became particularly pertinent when, once again, war overshadowed the island in the late 1930s, and the authorities began to fear that the influence of fascist, but Catholic, Italy might sway the loyalties of the Maltese.

During the Second World War, the Maltese once again were driven underground — this time, to save themselves from Nazi bombs. The island’s strategic location and vital harbour had again become a curse.

In Valletta, Rabat, and almost every other city, networks of tunnels — often adapted from ancient catacombs or medieval fortifications — were built as subterranean air-raid shelters. Many of these dank, forbidding bunkers — whose rough walls are covered in wartime graffiti — are open to the public today as a poignant reminder of the suffering of the island, which is the most bombed place on earth.

TIM WYATTIn the capital, Valletta, dozens of complex underground air-raid shelters were dug by hand during the Second World War

FINALLY, 20 years later, and with Malta’s strategic value diminishing in the Cold War, Britain agreed to withdraw, and, in 1964, Malta became for the first time an independent state, ruled not by foreign powers of varying religious hues but by its own people.

The resolute faith of the Maltese is evident to this day, still carved into the very stones that make up their villages and towns. As you walk and drive through the island, astonishingly large and ornate churches, often independently funded and built by volunteers, dominate the tiny hamlets that they serve.

In Rabat, the capital of Gozo island, each neighbourhood is associated with either the Madonna or St George. Small statuettes of each, designating that district’s loyalties, protrude from the narrow street corners, sometimes just metres from each other. Elsewhere on the main high street, an official council sign warns passers-by not to block what is still formally designated as the Bishop’s parking space.

Although Malta remains a deeply Catholic country, numbers of worshippers are falling. The first decennial survey of attendance at mass in 1967 showed that 82 per cent of Malta’s population received the sacrament each Sunday. By 2017, that figure had dropped to 37 per cent.

So long a site of furious religious conflict and a melting pot of historic spiritualities, Malta could be losing its fire. Change is coming in the shape of a new generation: numbers of teenagers and young adults attending mass has halved in just over a decade, and more than half of those who still attend are aged over 50.

The wave of secularisation which has swept mainland continental Europe in recent decades may finally be beginning to lap up against Maltese shores.

Tim Wyatt travelled to Malta with Air Malta and British Airways, and stayed at the Phoenicia Hotel, in Valletta.

www.campbellgrayhotels/the-phoenicia-malta

www.airmalta.com

www.britishairways.com

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